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Chapter Six


“Y ou cannot get good help nowadays.” “People

don’t work hard enough.” “People don’t care.”
Family Labor
“They want too much money.” “They aren’t depend- My suggestions in this area are consistent with the
able.” Labor can be a problem. Many of these food-production premise of this book—small, man-
comments may be valid, others not, but all are worth ageable, and efficient. The family is the best source
noting. It is wise to make some serious choices of labor for the small-scale farm. So the most impor­
ahead of time before you find yourself muttering tant recommendation is to set up an operation that is
those very sentiments. small, manageable, and efficient enough to be run

Some of the wonderful young people who we have hired.

The New Organic Grower

mainly by family labor. Why? Because farming is farming urge hidden behind an urbanized facade.
hard work, and the rewards at the start are measured While most are still dreaming about it, your farm is
more in satisfaction and pride than in large salaries. a reality. So offer potential helpers not so much a job
The farm family will do the work because it is their as rather a part-time outlet for their dream. It is sur-
dream. It is their canvas, and they are painting it the prising how many people share this dream but have
way they’ve always wanted it to look. Hired help who not yet decided to pursue it. Offer that reward to
can involve themselves from the start on such an those people.
intense level of participation are not easy to find.
This production system is planned to make the
most of family labor in the following ways: Finding Willing Workers
The potential labor pool extends from the young to
• I have chosen equipment for ease and efficiency the old, from students to retirees. Homemakers
of use and repair. whose children are now in school or college are
• I recommend growing a broad range of crops to often looking for a new challenge. Working on an
spread the work more evenly over a long season. organic farm can give them meaningful part-time
• I take a management-intensive approach for work and a chance to turn their energy and compe-
fertilization and pest control. tence into valuable assets. There are many such
• I stress forethought and pre-planning to people who are reliable, intelligent, hardworking,
avoid panic. interested, and motivated and would love the chance
• I propose imaginative marketing approaches to share in someone else’s dream. For them the
to save time and energy. rewards are only partially financial. Since work
hours are often limited to evenings or early morn-
Most important, this system is based upon a phi- ings (harvesting for market, say), the possibility of
losophy that aims at stability by establishing long-term, fitting farmwork into standard schedules is
self-perpetuating, low-input systems of production as increased. Where to look for willing workers? Some
opposed to short-term, high-input systems. of the following are good places to start:

• Retirement communities
Outside Labor • Supermarket bulletin boards (put up help-wanted
The best-laid plans don’t always run true, and signs and specify the benefits)
chances are the grower will sometimes need outside • Local colleges
labor. When paid helpers are required, I have some • Food co-ops
suggestions that may prove useful. • Garden clubs
If you find good employees, plan to keep them. • Condominium and apartment complexes
Pay a fair wage, and investigate profit-sharing
options and other rewards. One good worker famil-
iar with your operation is worth three inexperienced
workers. Be imaginative. What does the farm have to Be Efficient and Flexible
offer that will attract the ideal people? The usual Be efficient. Maximize skills, minimize deficiencies.
pool of labor available for part-time farmwork has Labor should be hired to do what the boss does not
never been the best. But think further. For many do best or what the boss does not need to do. Ideally,
people farming is exciting. Most everyone has a the boss is going to be good at growing and


marketing. Fine. Then hire help to harvest, wash, Weeds that are allowed to go to seed one year will
crate, and distribute. Whoever is best suited for a increase the weed problem for the next seven years.
certain area of the operation should spend his or her The quality of each job will affect the efficiency of the
time doing that as well as it can be done. Overall entire operation. Poor work must not be tolerated.
efficiency will be greater. Hire labor to complement Along with quality production goes excellence of
rather than replace family skills. skills. Set work standards and stick to them. Most
Be flexible. Work out a solution for the particular people have never learned the necessary bodily coor-
labor needs of the moment. If the labor arrangement dination needed to work well with simple tools. This
of the farm does not parallel that of modern agricul- lack of training and the consequent awkwardness
ture, let it be of no concern. Many unique situations result in making a job much more difficult than it
are successful. A farm may be next door to a large needs to be. Show your helpers how it’s done. They
vegetarian community that will buy everything at a should be taught to use garden tools just as carefully
premium and help out to boot. Students from a as they would be taught to play a musical instrument
nearby college may provide all the part-time labor on or speak a foreign language. Remember, any physi-
a work-study program. The farmer may have a dozen cal work is made easier by planning the job out
brothers and sisters living nearby who eagerly come beforehand, working at an efficient rhythm, and
and help out whenever they are needed. Ignore any dividing the job into attainable pieces.
claims that a farm only succeeds because of a special
arrangement. Success simply means that a farmer is
doing something right. Remember, too, that no mat-
ter how good a deal you may have at the moment, it
should never be assumed to be permanent. Always
have an alternative solution or two on hand.

Getting Quality Work

Jobs should be done correctly. The complement to
labor is management. That is what the boss must do,
and the quality of management determines to a large
degree how well labor performs. Horticulture is a
skilled profession, and there is a need to work quickly
but precisely. Standards must be set. I was impressed
in Europe to see how horticulture is respected and
understood. The employees are professionals, are
proud of their work, and take satisfaction in doing it
well. In the past this may have been true elsewhere,
but rarely anymore. The boss has to instill that spirit
of professionalism.
The repercussions of slipshod garden work are
cumulative. Rows planted crookedly in a moment of
carelessness cannot be cultivated efficiently and will
require hand-weeding for the entire growing season. Different spacing for different crops.

The New Organic Grower

uct. Whatever the reason, the bosses must convey a

Inspiring the Crew sense of that to outside workers. Don’t hesitate to be
An important facet of management is attitude. Man- inspirational and enthusiastic. If it is the magic of
agement must care about labor’s satisfaction. Many transforming a tiny seed into daily bread, then say
people will come to work because they are interested, so. If it is the joy of providing customers with truly
so encourage their involvement. Explain not only nourishing food that they can trust, talk about it. Not
what the job is but where it fits into the overall everyone will share the same motivation, but enthu-
scheme of things and why it is important. If some- siasm is contagious. Spread it about.
one is starting in the middle of a process, take a
moment to explain it fully so they can see both the
beginning and the end. Not only will they be more Firing Workers
interested when they understand the rationale for There are times when it will be necessary to fire
their efforts, but once they see the whole picture they someone. Do it nicely, but don’t put it off. There is
will be able to suggest improvements in the system. nothing more frustrating than making do with unin-
Very often a beginner has seen things that I have terested and unmotivated workers. One determined
missed because I was no longer looking at the job griper can ruin the experience for everyone else. Nip
from a fresh perspective. it in the bud quickly. If there are valid gripes, they
Finally, one last suggestion for dealing with out- should be dealt with fairly and openly. But beyond
side labor. As I have said, the farm family is its own that, be firm. Some people seem to enjoy complain-
best labor force because they are motivated. Think ing. I prefer not to have them around.
for a moment—why? Because they love what they A farm can’t do without labor. The trick is to do
are doing; because it is creative and satisfies a cre- well with it. If outside labor can’t be counted on,
ative urge; because farming is necessary and don’t set up a system that relies on it. When outside
fulfilling work; because quality is important, and labor is necessary, use the natural advantages of the
good growers take pride in producing a quality prod- farm to attract people who want to be there.